Story last updated at 12/19/2012 - 3:02 pm
Christmas decorations on the streetlights around Wrangell have been up for weeks, and the tall community tree with bright lights and decorations made by school children stands on Front Street for all to see. For nearly six weeks, catalogues crammed our post office boxes. The annual Christmas home lighting contest displays brightened the dark afternoon and night streets. It is Christmas time.
What did the early settlers do to prepare for and celebrate the holidays? Not those things I've mentioned above.
Meals were planned far ahead to be sure the necessities not available locally could be ordered and sent North on the steamers: dried fruits for traditional cakes, dried apples for apple pies, cranberries to string for the tree, jarred mincemeat if it hadn't been prepared at home during hunting season. Pantries were checked for preserved cranberries picked in the fall. Children were sent to check the potatoes for sprouts and decay because mashed potatoes and gravy were loved by all.
Details are often lacking about other things these settlers did. Fortunately I have a manuscript of a diary written in 1914 by Hudnall Coker about her Christmas in Craig. Mrs. Coker's husband, Joseph N. Coker, came to Craig with the Presbyterian Church that year, and she arrived in May. We learn she sent out her cards on the mail boat on Dec. 3. The previous day two women helped her plan a Christmas program for the Sunday school children to perform at the school house on Christmas Eve. The children and directors spent nearly every afternoon practicing when school was out for the day. Closer to Christmas they also practiced in the evening.
In the weeks to follow, we hear about the preparations she made for the holidays. On the 8th she baked a coconut cake and her daughter, who prepared the manuscript and gave it to me, commented that for Mrs. Coker, Christmas was not Christmas without a coconut cake made with fresh coconut. Mrs. Coker wrote "It wasn't very good." Fresh coconut in Craig was probably not available. Her December diary never mentions such a cake again.
On the 19th, the mail "brought the good things from home. Gee! Now happy!" The good things were a sack of pecans, a salad fork, a green crocheted center piece, apron and bag "from Cousin Mattie," a crocheted cap, a pair of pillow slips, mitts, and two shirts and two gowns for her husband from Mrs. Coker's mother.
On Dec. 22, "Mr. Coker and I tied up Christmas things. " The things were probably gifts or decorations for the house. Mrs. Coker continued to refer to her husband as Mr. Coker in her diary almost 12 months after their marriage. She had been matched with the Rev. Coker by two ministers because the Presbyterian Home Missions preferred to send married couples to remote places. He sent a letter to her home in Texas in August 1913, and she favorably responded that he could come for a visit. Somehow he talked her into marrying him. They were married in Dec. 1913, he left for Craig, and she traveled by steamship alone to Alaska in May.
On Dec. 24 she "got all the presents ready and went to decorate the school house and tree before the evening program." Afterwards she wrote "The program passed off beautifully and quietly. The Christmas tree was fine." No strings of colored lights, however. Sometimes small candles in holders were clipped to the tree, but she does not mention these. They were considered a fire hazard.
Instead of many decorations, presents were tied to the tree not only for the congregation but also for the Cokers. She received a "lace waist" (probably an undergarment with lace on the elastic), a red work bag, a handkerchief bag, a handkerchief, in total 10 cups and saucers, undoubtedly of what was known as bone china, a basket from Mrs. Koga, - a Native, a towel, a box of narcissus bulbs for forcing to bloom in the home from a lady at Coppermount mine in Hetta Inlet that she had met on the 4th of July, and a box of stationary from her Sunday school class. The Rev. Coker received another cup and saucer, a handkerchief and several pairs of sock, suspenders, and ties, the latter from the Sunday school class. She also lists a number of cards and a saucer of candy that were not on the tree. Mr. Coker gave her five cups and saucers and a roaster. Mrs. Coker does not mention what she gave him.
On Christmas Day, the Cokers left for Howkan. "A Queer Christmas for me. But, I had a good time." There was a wedding between Mrs. McLeod (a Native) and Winfield Woods undoubtedly officiated by the Rev. Coker. "Woke up at 2 a.m. [the day after Christmas]. There was a supper for thirty."
On Sunday the 27th they returned to Craig, "We had our Christmas dinner of ducks this afternoon." On the 28th, "I prepared for my party. Made decorations and cookies. Mrs. Tozier gave me such beautiful handkerchiefs." More handkerchiefs? This was the time, we have to remember, that there were no paper hankies, as my mother called them, i.e. Kleenex.
On the 29th, she got up early and had everything ready for the party by two in the afternoon. Eighteen people came. No wonder cups and saucers were a welcome gift! She undoubtedly did not bring many dishes from Texas at the beginning of the year. She served a salad, punch and cookies.
Everyone played "Rook," a card game that is still available. Rook, I found out, was sometimes called "Christian cards" or "missionary poker." It was introduced by Parker Brothers in 1906 for those who associated regular playing cards with gambling.
The next year, Mrs. Coker did not have Christmas in Craig. She, at age 38, was eight months pregnant on Dec. 1. Someone came to the door and said that a bad storm was brewing "Get to the Ketchikan hospital when you can." The reverend and Mrs. Coker grabbed a few things and hurried to the dock. The boat headed for Cape Chacon, a very turbulent point battered by waves from Dixon Entrance. The boat tossed from one side to the other, and the crew and the Rev. Coker were terrified she might have the baby. They managed to get to Ketchikan on Dec. 3.
At the Arthur Yates hospital, she was found to be in surprisingly good condition, and the couple moved somewhere temporarily. Many people learned of the plight of the Presbyterian missionaries from Craig and came to see how they might help. On Christmas Eve the young people from the church came to sing carols to the Cokers. On Christmas day, the two attended the local church services.
Then on the 26th, she returned to the hospital as its only patient. On the 29th the baby still had not been born. By coincidence, an obstetrician from Kansas City, Mo., was in town on a hunting trip and decided to stop by the hospital. On the 30th, between two doctors, they managed save Mrs. Coker's life and deliver a fat baby girl with bright red, curly hair. What better Christmas and New Year's present!
Pat Roppel is the author of numerous books about mining, fishing, and man's use of the land. She lives in Wrangell. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.